Desert Bloom

February 20, 2020

desertbloomIf Desert Bloom were not quite so sure of its own importance, it might be a great movie. It’s still a good one, though, and well worth recommending even with its problems.

At its heart, it is a family drama, filtered through the nearsighted eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Rose (Annabeth Gish), who struggles through the winter of 1950-’51 in Las Vegas with her eternally perky mother (JoBeth Williams), two sisters, stepfather (Jon Voight), and beloved aunt (Ellen Barkin), who is visiting to secure a Nevada divorce, and maybe to secure a high-rolling sugar daddy.

Most of the struggles spring from the instability of the stepfather, a disturbed alcoholic veteran, whose erratic and sometimes violent behavior becomes worse as he tries to figure out what the government is doing in the wasteland north of town.

What they’re doing out there is setting up a bombing range where atomic weapons will be detonated. This proximity provides the domestic drama with a suitably humbling perspective, as the characters conduct their fragile human business with a cloud over their heads – in this case, a cloud shaped like a mushroom.

It also provides writer-director Eugene Corr many opportunities for gallows irony. Townspeople trill ecstatically about the fun of being part of history; Voight changes the name of his desert service station to “Atomic Gas”; Williams rouses the kids out of bed on the morning of the first blast with a cheery, “Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time.”

Some of this humor seems uncomfortably patronizing to the characters in the film. Corr’s point may be that the government was not sufficiently informing the populace of the dangers involved, but his tone sometimes smacks of hindsight superiority.

This is all the more bothersome because so much of the film is beautifully written and acted, especially by Gish, Barkin, Jay Underwood (as Gish’s first love interest) and Allen Garfield, as a neighbor fearful of the bomb’s effects. Garfield immediately taps the audience’s identification, as he often does, in part because Voight’s character is so difficult and unsympathetic.

Voight’s performance dominates the film. The depth of his earnestness is astonishing, yet busy mannerisms crowd his character. He gets a few incredible moments, such as his pronouncement, after a spell in a detox hospital, that “From now on, I’m gonna be more easy-going,” while the cords in his neck stand out as tight as new rope, but he works so hard at being an actor that it detracts from the plight of his pathetic character. Gish’s unfussy raw talent is ultimately more moving.

Her scenes of growing up are lovely: the fun of schmoozing with the members of the Pink Pinky club, who paint only one fingernail with polish; the excitement of her first date, and the resulting terror of a falsie floating away across a swimming pool; the thrill of being fitted with a new dress by her racy aunt; the sadness after her Christmas gift is stonily unappreciated by her stepfather.

Desert Bloom, which premiered here earlier this year at the Seattle International Film Festival, was developed by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which helps projects get off the ground that wouldn’t usually have much of a chance. However problematical the film may be, it’s a strong effort, and Redford’s group is to be commended for allowing the film to flower.

First published in the Herald, August 17, 1986

I still remember the mood of this film – which says something about it – and that Voight’s performance is sometimes scary in its intensity. This was Annabeth Gish’s first film. Sundance, as you could see, was still pretty new.

Table for Five

July 19, 2012

It’s a well-known fact: everybody likes a good cry. But I think we can assume, based on the evidence of Table for Five, that Jon Voight likes a good cry more than the rest of us. In fact, this man loves a good cry, and he’ll open his ducts at the drop of a plot development. Voight gets through half of Table for Five in pretty good shape, but when the major plot bombshell falls—I’m not telling, but it’s a doozy—he starts doing some serious bawling in every other scene or so.

It gets to be too much, even if Voight is one of the best criers around. He’s playing a golf pro/divorced father who hopes to come back into the lives of his three children by taking them on a cruise to Egypt. Mom (Millie Perkins) gives her okay; her new man (Richard Crenna, in another slice-of-ham performance) is somewhat more skeptical. Voight’s character has a reputation as a loser, and the trip represents a last chance for his family and his self-respect. He quickly screws up, and is preparing to throw in the towel on the whole deal when circumstances force him to try again.

And that’s when Voight starts to get all trembly and quivery—he has to talk to his kids, but every time he tries to squeeze the words out, his face goes into contortions from the strain of holding back the tears, and he holds the words in after all. This goes on through the second half of the film, since the filmmakers—screenwriter David (Six Weeks) Seltzer and director Robert Lieberman—have decided it would be keen to put the audience through the emotional wringer every ten minutes; allowing Voight to be the weepy hesitator just increases the mileage they can get out of the eventual (and, in real-life terms, quite devastating) confrontation Voight must have with the children, and turns the movie into a tearjerking striptease.

The great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures some lovely light in the outdoor ocean liner scenes, and the scenery elsewhere is pretty, but…let’s hope he was paid well, enjoyed the traveling, and now wants to get back to work for Altman or Spielberg.

The title Table for Five, incidentally, refers to the dining arrangements that Voight reserves on the ocean liner for himself, his kids (played by three fairly excruciating child actors), and—someone else. The cute Frenchwoman that Voight hopes to get clubby with en voyage? The old widower who is conspicuously lonely? Or the audience itself—might the open chair be an invitation to cozy up to the principals? I doubt it. That would be assuming a level of complexity that the filmmakers don’t otherwise suggest. Either way, it’s an invitation that is awfully easy to resist.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

The “It’s a well-known fact” is, of course, from Gregory’s Girl. Other than that, not too many good memories of this wet movie, and I can’t remember whether Voight’s water works here pre-dates his reaction to the Laurence Olivier Oscar speech or merely repeats a tendency that proves all too facile for the actor’s toolkit.